Archive for the 'Books' Category

Check it out

November 20, 2008

I can understand people having strong objections to consolidating school districts or combining city and county governments. There is a sense that government will get so big and complicated that the ordinary citizen’s concerns will get overlooked. But consolidating libraries at the county level — having a county library system with numerous branches instead of a county library and several city libraries — seems like a logical move to me. The last two places I lived — in LaPorte County and here — have consolidated their libraries, and as a result have better services, more materials and better value for the taxpayers. But many members of the Indiana library community don’t see it that way:

Since December 2007, when the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform issued a report on streamlining local government, many library leaders expressed wariness about the report’s call to reorganize library systems by county and to ensure that unserved residents get service. Many librarians suggest that giving up local control for a “one size fits all” strategy is wrong, with some of the most vociferous blogging at Save Our Small Public Libraries.

[. . .]

The Indiana Library Federation has expressed caution, stating that, it “supports legislation that will provide additional options for unserved areas to be afforded libraries.” However, it also “supports a thorough evaluation of the cost-savings of the recommendations and an approach that allows each library and or library district input into the determination as to what is the best approach for it and its patrons. The Federation encourages legislation that allows for local variations in public libraries.”

It’s natural for the librarians to want local control and the ability to respond to the specific needs and desires of their patrons. But everything I’ve seen in LaPorte and Allen counties indicates that those libraries’ patrons are being well taken care of, and I don’t know why it would be any different for other counties that might come under the commission’s recommendations.

Libraries are facing enormous challenges right now, and might find it harder and harder to justify continued taxpayer support. The Internet and the digital revolution have eaten away at many of the libraries’ core functions. People can do far better research themselves and in much quicker time than by relying on the library. Why check out a video and face the hassle of returning it when you can just download it? Libraries are going to have to rethink their basic missions — perhaps more strongly emphasizing the gathering-place function, for example. Consolidating at the county level might turn out to be part of the answer for them, not a threat to overcome.

Holden on

September 2, 2008

What do you think?

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s beloved novel, once banned and full of frank four-letter words, will continue to be assigned to high school reading lists this year.

But Anne Trubek, a professor of English at Oberlin College, argues that it’s time to update Salinger’s coming-of-age tale.

“It was published in 1951 and it’s not so contemporary anymore,” Trubek tells Scott Simon. “I think that most American teenagers will find it rather tame and sort of laughable the things that were once considered so controversial.”

Catcher has become outdated in its sociological particulars, but it’s still one of best books ever at capturing teenage angst and the self-indulgent sense of isolation of those years. I think teens today — however else they’ve changed — still settle on some form of phoniness when they start thinking about what’s most wrong with the world. That’s why teens still get something out of the book, even if parts of it do make them laugh.

Foxy Hemingway

August 14, 2008

He fished. Then he wrote about fishing. It is a good read. A fine read. Not a hard read:

In a letter to Gertrude Stein, Hemingway described “Big Two-Hearted River” as a story in which “nothing happens.” Nick Adams walks out of Seney, makes camp, and goes fishing. Beneath this mundane surface, however, swims a potent personal drama.

Something bothers Nick. The text doesn’t say what. As an author, Hemingway routinely withheld what would seem to be key information; his stories are often exercises in decipherment. A close reading of “Big Two-Hearted River” reveals that Nick’s trek into the backwoods of Michigan is about much more than hooking trout.

But it wasnt the Two-Hearted. It was the Fox. He changed it. He had a reason.

Poetry.

Dumbed down

May 13, 2008

Well, this won’t be controversial:

To Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, the present is a good time to be young only if you don’t mind a tendency toward empty-headedness. In “The Dumbest Generation,” he argues that cultural and technological forces, far from opening up an exciting new world of learning and thinking, have conspired to create a level of public ignorance so high as to threaten our democracy.

Adults are so busy imagining the ways that technology can improve classroom learning or improve the public debate that they’ve blinded themselves to the collective dumbing down that is actually taking place. The kids are using their technological advantage to immerse themselves in a trivial, solipsistic, distracting online world at the expense of more enriching activities – like opening a book or writing complete sentences.

Mr. Bauerlein presents a wealth of data to show that young people, with the aid of digital media, are intensely focusing on themselves, their peers and the present moment. YouTube and MySpace, he says, are revealingly named: These and other top Web destinations are “peer to peer” environments in the sense that their juvenile users have populated them with predictably juvenile content. The sites where students spend most of their time “harden adolescent styles and thoughts, amplifying the discourse of the lunchroom and keg party, not spreading the works of the Old Masters.”

 

I know every old generation has been dismissive of every new generation and that the new generations eventually grow up and take their rightful place — we’ve talked about that here before. But maybe there is something different this time. What happens when we try to reinvent the culture over and over instead of “passing down a fixed, canonical culture” that evolves gradually?

2008: A space odyssey

March 18, 2008

The three giants of the golden age of science fiction are now gone. Arthur C. Clarke has followed Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov into that unknown territory that all humans eventually travel to but nobody reports back from:

Mr. Clarke played down his success in foretelling a globe-spanning network of communications satellites. “No one can predict the future,” he always maintained. But as a science fiction writer he couldn’t resist drawing up timelines for what he called “possible futures.”

Science fiction writers tend to be judged by how accurate their predictions of the future are, and Clarke was better at it than most. But the really great ones — starting with Mary Shelley and her “Frankenstein,” the first novel that could be called science fiction — use their speculations to comment on the current human condition.

I never got into the “2001” phenomenon all that much, but Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” was one of the SF novels that first had a profound effect on me. It was written during the height of the Cold War, and its exploration of the individual vs. the group resonates today and will be important for generations to come. There will always be Overlords, and they will too often seem benign.

Reserve my copy

February 29, 2008

I can hardly wait:

NEW YORK – Eminem is working on a book that’s “every bit as raw and uncensored as the man himself,” according to his publisher.

Dutton Books, an imprint of The Penguin Group, announced Wednesday that it would be publishing the best-selling rapper’s “The Way I Am” this fall.

[. . .]

Offering a window on the star’s private thoughts on everything from his music and the trials of fame to his love for his daughter, Hailie, this title is every bit as raw and uncensored as the man himself,” Dutton said.

Shouldn’t complain, I guess; at least this is keeping him busy. He hasn’t had an album since 2004, and a spokesman says there is none in the works.

Book ends

February 28, 2008

Of all that humankind has created, books above all are about who we really are: I am what I read. People who insist on treating books as objects to prove to others who they want them to think they are can just stay out of my life:

“It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” So runs the “prime directive” for bookshelf etiquette, as issued by a blogger for Time magazine named Matt Seligman. At The American Prospect a couple of weeks ago, Ezra Klein responded in terms that are no less categorical – though hardly more sensible, it seems to me.

“Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read,” says Klein; “those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I’m pretty sure that’s what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental. The question becomes how we’ll project all of this when Kindles takes off and all our books are digital.”

I filled up my bookshelves long ago and decided it was a waste of time to try to build more. Books now occupy the couch, tops of tables, corners, bathroom, half of the stairs going to the second floor. Ones I’ve read multiple times mingle with ones I haven’t gotten around to yet. Wandering through the house, I might pluck up a new find or an old friend.

Years ago, I started a book that was so bad that, after finishing the first chapter, I went outside and threw it in the trash. I was out there at midnight, retrieving it. It’s still around here somewhere, in one pile or another. Perhaps I will encounter it again one of these days, and think better of it.

Two books

December 6, 2007

I’m reading a couple of books now that I’d put on my recommended list, depending on your taste in fiction.

One is “Variable Star,” a newish science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. Yes, that Robert Heinlein, who died back in the 1980s. His estate found notes and an outline for a book he was considering writing back in the 1950s but never got around to. They were turned over to Robinson, a living science fiction writer of some renown, who then “collaborated” with the late grand master. It’s a satisfying read — Robinson did well enough in finding Heinlein’s voice that you can almost lose yourself again in the future he imagined. (This book idea was from Heinlein’s “juvenile” period, so it would help if you can put yourself back into a 12-year-old’s mindset.) One thing that is a little disconcerting. Any science fiction writer extrapolates from current social mores and sensibilities, so that is a little off. You expect, seeing Heinlein’s name there, to also get a feel for 1950s sensibilities, but since the writing was done by a modern writer, we get current sensibilities.

The other is “St. Dale” by Sharyn McCrumb. I picked it up because I love everything she has written, especially the mysteries in Southern mountain settings. The mysteries are satisfying, the writing elegant, the characters colorful (a lot of them very familiar to me). This one is different, about a group of diehard Dale Earnhardt fans who take a bus tour of the Southern NASCAR circuit, ending at the Daytona track where he died. I knew nothing about NASCAR — either the sport or its culture — but now I do, thanks to the interplay of the fascinating characters she’s created here. I won’t say this book has made be a big racing fan, but it is giving me a better understanding of a whole other world I was ignorant of.

1.5 million and counting

November 29, 2007

Cool:

PITTSBURGH – Nearly a decade ago, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University embarked on a project with an astonishingly lofty goal: Digitize the published works of humankind and make them freely available online.

The architects of the project said Tuesday they have surpassed their latest target, having scanned more than 1.5 million books — many of them in Chinese — and are continuing to scan thousands more daily.

“Anyone who can get on the Internet now has access to a collection of books the size of a large university library,” said Raj Reddy, a computer science and robotics professor at the university who spearheaded the project.

And when they get around to Kindle 2.0, you can probably carry all those books around in your pocket. Here’s the link to the Universal Digital Library.

Readers are winners

November 20, 2007

Well, here’s a shock:

Americans aged 15 to 24 on average spend two hours a day watching TV and only seven minutes on leisure reading, reducing their chances for high-paying jobs and community service, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sixty-one percent of those holding managerial or professional jobs were proficient readers, said the report, citing a 2003 U.S. Education Department survey. Some 70 percent of the people rated as poor readers felt their lack of skills had limited their job opportunities.

Perhaps the amazing Kindle will lure the young’uns in, fooling them into thinking they are having an electronic experience instead of actually reading. I dunno. It looks kina ugly — aesthetics are important — but the features are cool. No computer needed, and it can download not only books but newspapers and magazines and blog content as well.

Literary circles

November 20, 2007

In an Associated Press story on the deaths within the past year of Norman Mailer, William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut, Mailer’s literary executor makes an unusal observation:

“Vonnegut was the American Mark Twain. He even looked liked him. Everybody loved Vonnegut, whereas Norman was a much more controversial figure,” says J. Michael Lennon, the literary executor for Mailer, who died Nov. 10 at age 84.

The American Mark Twain? I thought that was Sam Clemens’ job. I would like to think of David Letterman as the Hoosier Leo Morris, but he’s been on the quiet side lately without his, um, writers.

Writers block

October 10, 2007

I think I have a book somewhere around the house; better find it:

US TV networks and studios have started planning for a strike by Hollywood writers next month which could cripple the television industry.

It’s the Writer’s Guild that is threatening to strike. Its members are being asked “to schedule additional table reads, prepare additional scripts and squeeze in more shows, which may be physically impossible in that amount of time.” My heart bleeds.

Mountain retreat

September 24, 2007

Papa gets some brand-new digs:

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ernest Hemingway‘s final home in this central Idaho mountain town — with its astonishing array of the author’s personal possessions — is perhaps the most enigmatic, and certainly the least visited, of the houses the Nobel Prize winner once owned.

As a result, it’s mostly remembered as the place where the writer killed himself in the main entryway with a shotgun in 1961.

Taylor Paslay is working to change that image with research that could end up being the foundation for protecting the aging 1950s house that neighbors in nearby modern mansions have suggested be picked up and carted off.

It is a good house. It is a strong house. It is a clean, fine house. But there was a death in the afternoon, so now it is a quiet house.  The house can be saved, so the house must be saved.

The great divide

August 23, 2007

Remember the digital divide? How the world was going to be split between those with access to all the new media and the poor, left-behind dunces who would not have access? It turns out that we have a divide involving a much older medium. One in four adult Americans say they did not read a book last year:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.

The survey reveals a nation whose book readers, on the whole, can hardly be called ravenous. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn’t read any, the usual number read was seven.

That does not mean, of course, that all those non-book-readers are uninformed. Many of them are undoubtedly getting information from radio, cable news, the Internet. But reading involves a special kind of learning. When you read, you have to think. You not only have to pay attention to the sentence you’re reading; you have to relate it to the sentence you’ve just read and put it together with the one you’re about to read. Reading makes you pay attention to past and future, to consider not only actions but their consequences, to be aware of the sequences of life. And lasting through a whole book, whether fiction or nonfiction, focuses the mind in a way nothing else can.

Madly burning

August 17, 2007

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”

Happy 50th anniversary, “On the Road.”

Free Harry Potter!

July 24, 2007

OK, people are turning away from the Old Media to sample new forms of communication. Fine. But do the old media have to keep hurting their own credibility?It turns out you can’t even believe The New York Times bestseller list:

It happened in 2000. The Harry Potter books — a once in a lifetime publishing phenomenon — were dominating the bestseller lists, with three titles ensconced in the Top 15 at the same time. It just wasn’t fair, moaned publishers of more “serious” fiction. It kept more deserving titles off the list, titles that people would never hear about, said bookstore owners. And so in a rash, indefensible decision, the New York Times decided to banish children’s books solely to their own separate list.

Imagine if the people behind the Nielsen Top 10 TV show listings decided that reality shows were “taking away” valuable attention from dramas and sitcoms. Let reality shows get their own list and the official Top 10 only include “genuine” TV shows, like CSI and House and Grey’s Anatomy.

Imagine if Variety decided animated movies were just for kids and didn’t belong on the box office Top Ten list, when more adult films like Knocked Up and Ocean’s 13 needed the space.

Imagine if Billboard decided to banish country music to Nashville and reserve its list of Top Ten album for “real” music like pop, rock and hip hop.

Of course, that would be absurd. Any list of top TV shows that didn’t include American Idol would be a joke. Any ranking of hit movies that ignored Shrek The Third or Ratatouille would be foolish. And any ranking of top CDs that pretended Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood didn’t exist would be bizarre.

And yet that’s exactly the status of The New York Times Bestseller list.

The hippie warrior

July 11, 2007

A few days late, but a shout-out on the 100th birthday of Robert Heinlein. He is considered somewhat of a godfather of modern libertarianism, so it’s approrpriate that he’s remembered by Reason magazine:

Heinlein’s novels and short stories reflected the rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message associated with Goldwater and the conservative movement he sparked. At the same time, his writings exuded the communal desire to live in blissful togetherness, ignoring the repressive sexual and religious mores of bourgeois America. With a libertarian vision that appealed to individualists of both the left and the right, Heinlein not only set the template for the American 1960s but helped create the looser, hipper, more pluralist world of the decades since.

Whether we’re looking at post-Star Wars pop culture, post-Reagan politics, or the day-to-day tenor of our own lives in the Internet age, it’s easy to see that while more literary novelists such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow enjoy high-flying critical reputations, it’s Heinlein’s fingerprints that mark the modern world.

There is a great Heinlien quote in the piece: “I’m so much a libertarian that I have no use for the whole libertarian movement.” I started reading him in high school before I even started thinking in political terms, mostly because Ray Bradbury had whetted my appetite for sf, and Heinlein was the next logical step. But a lot of his stuff resonated with me, so maybe there was a nascent libertarian in me.

A lot of people have struggled with the notion that the same person could have written “Starship Troopers,” which some see as nearly fascist, and “Stranger in a Strange Land,” almost a tribute to libertinism. The Reason article does a good job of explaining how both novels explored the twin concepts of duty and love and how both are necessary for the survival of the human race.

So long, Harry

June 28, 2006

Uh-oh, millions of kids probably will be upset to hear this:

LONDON, England (AP) — Author J.K. Rowling said two characters will die in the last installment of her boy wizard series, and she hinted Harry Potter might not survive either.

"I have never been tempted to kill him off before the final because I’ve always planned seven books, and I want to finish on seven books," Rowling said Monday on TV in London.

Better put the grief counselors on notice. No telling what this will do to the next generation’s self esteem.

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Breaking the code

May 15, 2006

I know it’s so customary to slam other people’s success that any attempt at it seems suspicious, but I confess that my reaction to "The Da Vinci Code" was the same as this:

With its flat prose, stick-figure characters, wooden dialogue, perfunctory scene-setting and an unfortunate tendency to interrupt the action with momentum-killing lectures, the novel is in some ways the unlikeliest of best sellers. Many Chicago writers, critics, scholars and book-industry insiders are flummoxed by the book’s success.

Like Bill Young, quoted in the story, I got through about 50 pages of the book and gave it up. I like popular fiction, especially mysteries, but trying to read this book was a chore.

Of course, 50 pages is all the further I ever got into "Moby Dick," despite repeated efforts, and most of the critics say that is a great book, so maybe I’m not the best judge.

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Heinlein’s heir

February 17, 2006

I just finished a book from last year (I waited for the paperback) — John Scalzi’s "Old Man’s War" — that I highly recommend to science fiction fans. Its the first thing I’ve read in a long time that reminds me of Robert Heinlein. It starts this way — "I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave, Then I joined the army." — and just gets better and better. The protagonist is John Perry, who joins the Colonial Defense Forces because he has nothing left to keep him on Earth. He is "installed" in a better-than-new young body; in return, he agrees to  fight aliens for up to 10 years in a crowded universe with few habitable planets. As one reviewer said, "Its ‘Starship Troopers’ without the lectures. It’s ‘The Forever War’ with better sex." Great read.

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Between the covers

January 19, 2006

Could there be two books more different than James Frey’s "A Million Little Pieces" and Elie Wiesel’s "Night"? One is a fabricated life story by an American brat meant to cash in on our morbid fascination with the therapeutic culture: I was bad, but I redeemed myself! The other is a gut-wrenching memoir of one family’s experience in a Nazi death camp. But both have been selections of Oprah’s book club, and each raises questions about the definitions of fiction and nonfiction.

Granted, the distinction is sometimes hard to make. Many novels weave real people and actual events into their plots. Many good personal stories ("Kitchen Confidential," "It’s all Over but the Shouting" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" are ones I’ve read that qualify) obviously take some liberties with real events; spotty memories must sometimes be filled in with narrative leaps of faith. But every great book, whatever mix of fact and fiction it is, has a commitment to the truth at its core. Wiesel’s book has that; Frey’s does not.

Oprah doesn’t seem to get that. Despite the revelation by The Smoking Gun Web site of Frey’s embellishments of his story of substance abuse, she continues to say that any factual problems with "A Million Little Pieces" are "transcended by the book’s emotional power." Emotion trumps reason. That’s the modern narrative, isn’t it?

Oprah Winfrey has more power than any other single person to get a book read:

On Monday, Winfrey announced that Wiesel’s classic account of his family’s placement in the Auschwitz death camp was her latest choice. "Night" quickly topped the best seller list on Amazon.com, displacing Winfrey’s previous selection, James Frey’s "A Million Little Pieces."

She does a very good thing by promoting books and reading. But unless she uses her power to advance the search for truth, Oprah is doing us no favors.

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Catch you later

January 17, 2006

Indianapolis has picked "Catch Me If You Can" as its latest One Book-One City subject, which seems like a pretty lightweight choice. Here’s the list of 25 finalists, which had a few that seem more likely to generate lively discussion. I would have voted for "Lonseome Dove," one of the great reads of all time, or "The Time Traveler’s Wife," which is that rare novel that can really be called unique, about a woman who lives her life normally and sequentially and a man who is involuntarily yanked through time; no description of the premise can really do it justice.

Here, we’ve done "Farenheit 451," "The Diary of Anne Franke" and "Frankenstein," and I enjoyed re-reading the first two for the project and reading the latter for the first time. I still wish they’d do "The Magnificent Ambersons," one of the best novels set in Indiana.

(Hat tip to IndyScribe)

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A novel approach

September 7, 2005

I should probably lament this development as another sign of civilization’s decline — see, nobody’s reading anymore! But it seems like an interesting way to add interest to the magazine. I read a lot of comic books as a kid and graduated to Mad magazine and National Lampoon, checking out a few Classics Illustrated along the way. If I could find a good illustrator, I’d add a graphic novel to this blog.

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Let’s bring the next one home

August 30, 2005

The Allen County Public Library has chosen Frankenstein as its third book in its One Community, One Story project. I liked the first two choices — "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" — and I like this one, too. Many of us who are science-fiction fans consider Mary Shelley’s book the first true work of science fiction in the way it explores the clash between technology and morality. That theme is what defines science fiction, as opposed to science fantasy or speculative fiction or any of the other sf sub-genres. I do wish two that at some point the ACPL would choose The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington’s wonderful novel set in Indianapolis at the dawn of the 20th century; there is the flawed (to say the least) but interesting Orson Wells film of the novel that can be shown in conjunction with its discussion.

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Maple Leaf Rag

August 17, 2005

Never mind not reading the books you shouldn’t even have. I’m ordering you right now not even to think about this. And I mean it.

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